Olde Man’s Tavern: Suzuki’s Place


Baseball is baseball no matter where it’s played. In the streets. At the park. A sandlot (crazy flick). Any place you can concoct a diamond, baseball can be played and enjoyed.

There have been and are many players on Major League rosters that have not been born in the United States. Baseball fans are well aware of these players and how much they add to the game. For my money (which isn’t all that much) no single foreign-born player has added as much excitement to the game as the right fielder for the Seattle Mariners, Ichiro Suzuki.

For this week’s Tavern, we take a trek of almost 2,100 miles from Ameriquest Field in Arlington, Texas to the Mariners home of Safeco Field in Seattle. It’s a trip the M’s and Rangers take frequently being American League West rivals. For us, only this one time.

The trip Ichiro would embark on in his quest to arrive in Seattle wasn’t always a smooth one. As a member of the Orix Blue Wave in his home country of Japan, he found criticism of his swing. A swing many of us have found a bit unorthodox. That was the theory of his first manager in Japan. It went against all conventional wisdom. It still does. Ichiro would be sent to the minors to work on his swing. Good thing he didn’t and he stuck with his own way of approaching the aspects of hitting. When Orix hired a new manger in 1994, Ichiro’s career would blossom. And blossom it did.

Suzuki set the Nippon Professional Baseball league’s single season record for hits in that season of 1994 with 210 hits. That record stood until this past season when former Major Leaguer Matt Murton surpassed the 210 mark , but Ichiro’s 210 is still recognized as his hits came during a 130 game campaign where as Murton’s was accomplished over 142 games. Sound familiar? The whole Ruth and Maris thing of sorts except that Murton is an American “breaking a record” of a Japanese born player. Doesn’t sit well over there.

During his final seven full seasons in Japan, Ichiro would prove his offensive prowess. He hit over .300 every season, posted no less that 12 home runs in any one season (a trait he’s not known for here in the States), achieve an on-base percentage of over .400 every year and over .500 slugging each year. In his final season in NPB, Suzuki would end the year with the highest batting average in his illustrious career with a .387 mark.
The year of change would be 2000.

After that 2000 season, Orix was no longer one of the NPB’s best clubs and Ichiro was to be a free agent. Instead of losing everything Orix had invested in him after that season, the team’s ownership permitted the superstar to begin negotiating with teams in America using what is referred to as the posting system. The systems allows for players from NPB to have their rights bid upon by MLB teams. The highest bid wins the rights to negotiate. The Mariners posted a bid of about $13 million and were awarded sole rights to negotiate a contract with Ichiro. After all was said and done, one of Japan’s most popular players would be heading to the Emerald City on a three-year, $14 million contract.

The move didn’t come without its critics. Ichiro was seeking to become the first position player to regularly play in the bigs. Too slight to endure a 162-game season. Too thin to keep up with the pitching. Japan was an aberration to some, too a lot actually. Future manager Mike Hargrove even commented that Ichiro was no better than a fourth outfielder. Sometimes, words come back to bite you in the arse…as Hargrove found during his tenure as Seattlle’s manager. The two did not gel.

Needless to say, Ichiro set out to prove all doubters wrong. Has he ever succeeded there. His rookie season of 2001 netted him some major hardware. AL Rookie of the Year, Silver Slugger, Gold Glove and the AL MVP. A pretty complete trophy case in just one season in the majors. He amassed 242 hits and complied a .350 batting average. His hit total led all of baseball and his batting average also won him the AL batting crown.

That’s one way to disprove people. Talk with your skills. No one play set Ichiro apart than in what is referred to in Japan as simply “The Throw”. An excerpt for the English version of The Japan Times about that one play from April 12, 2001 in an article by Marty Kuehnert.

"Terrence Long, the speedy center fielder of the A’s, reached first on a single up the middle, and then with one out, pinch-hitter Ramon Hernandez came up and spanked another single to right.Long looked at Ichiro charging the ball in right but thought to himself, “With my speed, it is going to have to be a perfect throw to get me,” so he gambled . . . and that was a big mistake."

It’s a mistake many base runners have made to this day (and still make), but that 2001 season would be the commencement of what is arguably a Hall of Fame career.

In 2004, Ichiro would set a mark many thought was unattainable. He broke George Sisler’s mark for hits in a season. Until then, the closest anyone would come was 254 hits by both Lefty O’Doul (1929) and Bill Terry (1930). Sisler’s record of 257 stood for 86 years. On the first day of October, Ichiro would record #258. During his selection to the 2009 All-Star Game in St. Louis, Ichiro would pay his respects to Sisler by visiting his grave site.

And the legend grew more.

During this past season, Suzuki would amass another impressive record. Against the Toronto Blue Jays at Rogers Centre, he would record his 200th hit of the season making it ten straight seasons in which a player would accumulate 200+ hits. Only Ichiro and Pete Rose have ten total seasons with 200+ hits, but the former Orix superstar performed his feat in consecutive seasons unlike Rose. In doing such, he also passed Ty Cobb for the AL record for the number of seasons of 200+ hits. In all of his ten seasons, he has finished no lower than second in hits.

Impressive? I’d say so.

Now there’s a murmur of potential inclusion in the Hall of Fame. He is eligible with having ten seasons under his belt. It’s not at all out of reach either. Some are starting to sway to Ichiro’s side of the fence, a side I’ve been on for a while now.

On Yahoo!’s Big League Stew, David Brown is one that’s veering  in that direction.

"He’s also got 382 stolen bases; 10 All-Star appearances; nine Gold Gloves; He’s 144th in WAR among position players for his career; a .331 career batting average; he’s 23rd in runs scored. He does well on the Black Ink Test and OK on gray. This is adding up.Ichiro, to me, is a clear Hall of Famer. Disagree? What keeps him out?"

I think I’ve already stated that I agree with Brown.

One thing Brown mentions is that Ichiro is just turning 37. While considered “old” in most sporting circles, it’s not to Ichiro. A fact that many are not aware off is that Ichiro has played in all 162 games in three of his ten seasons. Longevity, too. The least number of games he’s played in any one season is 146 in 2009. That’s because he is still in excellent physical condition, a fact not lost on his baseball brethren in Seattle. His pregame workout is well known amongst those that have played in Seattle.

Compare Ichiro’s numbers to that of the average Hall of Famer, his rank among current HOF’ers and the next HOFer he can possibly pass:

StatAvg HOFIchiroRankNext to Pass
YRS1810213Joe Gordon
ASG61035Carlton Fisk
Games2,1351,588125Billy Hamilton
PA8,9947,339107Jimmy Collins
AB7,9166,779102Joe Kelley
Runs1,3221,047114Dave Bancroft
Hits2,3982,24487Bid McPhee
HR2109099Rod Carew
RBI1,214558147Billy Southworth
SB22838227Jesse Burkett
AVG.303.33122Paul Waner
OBP.376.37673Heinie Manush
SLG.462.430103Billy Hamilton
OPS.838.80695Buck Ewing

The percentages Ichiro is not likely to pass are slugging and possibly OPS, but I think a point can be made that in only ten seasons, Ichiro is unquestionably hall-worthy.

And that’s not including what he did in Japan.